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RPG Codex Report: Gamescom, Wasteland 2 Preview And More
Preview - posted by Grunker on Wed 28 August 2013, 17:14:49Tags: Alexander Dergay; bitComposer; Brian Fargo; Chris Keenan; Daniel Eskildsen; inXile Entertainment; Julien Pirou; Limbic Entertainment; Logic Artists; Matt Findley; Michael Hoss; Might & Magic X: Legacy; Stephan Winter; Thomas Beekers; Ubisoft
Wirtten by Grunker with contributions by JarlFrank, edited by Infinitron
In the following article, JarlFrank and I outline our basic impressions from our visit to Gamescom, and briefly discuss the games we played and our conversations with the developers we spoke to. Another article will be posted with more information on Might & Magic X Legacy, which was the main game we spent time with during our visit to Gamescom.
Gamescom isn't exactly an ideal setting for critical journalism. Overall, we were very critical of Gamescom's structure when it comes to producing worthwhile journalism. It is perhaps sufficient to state that the previews we have written, which were based on short glimpses of gameplay, can never be more than what the framework provided by Gamescom allows them to be; shallow observations supported by critical questions to the extent it was possible for us to ask them.
In the near future, we will be publishing an article dealing with the overall concept of Gamescom and the journalism it supports. Suffice it to say, our perspective on that is rather unfavorable.
It has now been published! CLICK ME!
RPG Codex Report: Gamescom, Wasteland 2 Preview And More
Gamescom is a weird place. It is part business conference, with men and women in nice suits who look like they have never played a game before in their lives but certainly look like they've made money off of them. It is also part developer forum, with game developers showing up en masse to talk to these business people about funding their games, or talk to fans on behalf of their publisher. Lastly, it is part fan meeting, hosting both journalists and “regular” fans who come here to get a sneak peek at new games or talk to their favorite developer.
Officially, we're at Gamescom for the Might & Magic Fan Day. I've been flown in by the dear folks at Ubisoft, who are apparently so desperate for Codex approval that they felt like bribing us with food that you have to stand up to eat, watered down drinks at a party that ends at 12AM, and useless “swag” like Heroes VI artwork and posters. Had we been paid journalists, we would probably have been embarrassed on behalf of our craft to accept it. As simple gamers writing for other gamers, we are mostly annoyed by the prospect of hauling it all back to our various habitats. Our disappointment only grows as it slowly dawns on us that neither Doritos nor other bribes are forthcoming. To drink, we only receive some unlabeled lemonade. Decent, but no Mountain Dew.
A selection of bribes. Note the 1.44mb floppy with M&M X Legacy stuff on it. Now we're gonna have to dig out the ol' USB floppy drive.
In all seriousness, the guy who meets us at the south entrance to Gamescom, Arnaud Fremont, is an exceedingly friendly sort. On a fundamental level, we're glad that Ubisoft view us as such an integral part of the community surrounding Might & Magic X Legacy that they wish to fly us over here to meet the team. The Codex is, apparently, a prestigious magazine. It's a unique opportunity to divine some information on one of the games the Codex has been following with the utmost interest. Fremont is a French intern at Ubisoft, and someone has tasked him with the thankless task of keeping a crowd of 15 or so Might & Magic fans under control for the duration of their stay at Gamescom. First stop is the Might & Magic booth. Some of the fans are there for Duel of Champions, a Might & Magic online card game, some for Heroes Online, and a couple of us for Might & Magic X Legacy. The visit to the booth does not start off great. A couple of PR people from Ubisoft try to shout out the crowd over the roar of the packed Ubisoft presentation hall, giving us details on the games the booth has on display. It is a small mercy when the briefing ends, and we become somewhat free to wander around and pick out hapless developers for short bursts of interview attacks. The first guy we target is Stephan Winter, managing director at Limbic Entertainment, the developers of Might & Magic X Legacy. Stephan is a jovial character. His smile is welcoming without becoming a plastered on PR grin, and he agrees to introduce us to the other developers. We talk about the game, about how it even came to be, and a bunch of other stuff, most of which you can read in our upcoming article about Might & Magic X Legacy, which will be coming in the following days. Winter has a good grasp of the community, and he's aware of the problems people are having with the game. “So, itemization is basically crap right now,” he says. “Shops are supposed to replenish their products, and there should be diverse item drops with prefixes and suffixes. Fiery Axe of Doom and such. It'll come.” Julien Pirou, creative designer on Might & Magic X Legacy, fleshes out this point: “Yeah, itemization is one of the main things being worked on. You know, one of the few good ideas in Might & Magic IX was these black chests, that were really hard to find, but when you found them, you knew they had something awesome inside them. We have something like that. We also have relics like in the old games, but they work differently. You'll be able to level them up so they follow your progression, kind of.” His thoughts seem to wander off, and his smile turns into a grin: “and don't worry, you don't have to be online for that to work,” he comments, obviously referring to the Always Online controversy surrounding the relics of Might & Magic Heroes VI.
Ubisoft's Might & Magic X Legacy booth. Why do they make all of us out-of-shape geeks stand up when we play?
Pirou can speak endlessly about World of Xeen or any other Might & Magic game, taking delight in remembering and discussing every little secret and every little nook and cranny of their worlds. A pleasant shadow of the past glides over his face whenever the conversation topic wanders back to the older games. It was a very refreshing experience to speak to developers who actually know and care about the games they're developing a sequel to. The Might & Magic booth was in all likelihood the only place at Gamescom where fans, journalists and developers discussed 90s dungeon crawlers with fond memories.
We manage to slip out of the Might & Magic booth later that day for a short talk with Daniel Eskildsen, Ali Emek and Juan Ortega of Logic Artists, the developers of Expeditions: Conquistador. “So,” JarlFrank opens, “how did the aftermath of Conquistador turn out?” Daniel replies: “It did... well enough.” JarlFrank follows up with a question on whether there is any chance for another campaign in the form of an expansion pack or DLC. Daniel responds: ”It might happen... it's not only up to us, but we'll see.” I continue: “How about Kickstarter? You thinking of returning to that?” Daniel throws a gesture of uncertainty. “We don't know, to be honest. Kickstarter is hard, hard work. We're definitely not doing it for our next project. That's what we're here for. To see if we can make some deals on our next project.” Our interest rises at that comment, but is then somewhat diminished by Emek: “I'm not sure it is strictly a Codexian sort of project,” he says. “Well, what is it?”, I ask. Emek flashes us a wry smile. “Off the record?”, he asks.
The projects sounds really interesting. We're not breaching confidentiality by divulging that it's a hybrid, and, well, the Codex likes its hybrids at times.
inXile's presentation room is a small white booth at the back of Deep Silver's locale. As we wait for the room to be cleared of the prior team of journalists, we spot Brian Fargo and Thomas Beekers, known as Brother None here on the Codex. As the journalists clear out, we walk in and introduce ourselves by name, shaking hands with Chris Keenan, Project Lead, as well as Matthew Findley, President of inXile, with Beekers, and of course, the man himself, Brian Fargo. With us are three other journalists, and as we prepare to sit down, Beekers says to Fargo: “yeah, these are the Codex guys.” Fargo gets a wild expression on his face, like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a truck, and says: “Wait, these guys are from the RPG Codex? Oh shi-” as he darts rapidly for the exit. Laughter quickly breaks out.
Fargo beams with charisma. He's the kind of guy who instantly inspires trust, and the sterile, white walls of the booth are quickly warmed by gratuitous jokes on the twisted relationship that any game developer – even the ones we might like – has with the Codex. It's a shame this isn't a good forum for long discussions, because we have a million questions we'd like to ask, as well as a couple of critical nudges that might cool the air a bit. Alas, our time together is short, and we must try to squeeze as much information out of the situation as we can.
From left to right: Casper Gronemann [Grunker] - Brian Fargo - Frank Sawielijew [JarlFrank] - Thomas Beekers [Brother None]
Fargo mentions that he appreciates the harsh criticism he can read on the Codex: ”You know, when you release screenshots of an early build of your game, people on some forums say it's awesome and excuse things they don't like as details and flaws in an early build. Then when the game is released they start complaining. The Codex is brutally honest from the get-go, for better or worse. If there's something wrong, they'll tell you. That's why I occasionally read the Codex, too, because there's a directness in the feedback I can't find anywhere else.”
Chris Keenan turns around and starts explaining the basics of what Wasteland 2 is. As our first presentation of this kind, we're taken aback by the fact that he has to start with the most basics information, such as the fact that Wasteland 2 is a turn-based, party-based RPG. Shouldn't anyone coming to see a demo have gotten that far? Ah well. The game fires up. The first thing we notice is that the UI has vastly improved since the last time we saw it. Fargo and Beekers smile knowingly at each other as Fargo comments: “as you see, the red End Turn button is gone,” as if that was a symbol of all the ails that have plagued the initial UI mock-ups. We laugh, as the demo starts. The demo is a linear walkthrough of half an hour of gameplay, showing off some choices, some skill checks and some combat. Keenan narrates the whole playthrough, while Findley controls the action.
Findley's Ranger party meet a trader as they go out on a mission for their general, who is communicating with them via radio. At this point, Fargo intervenes with two points; that all NPC inventories are completely lootable, and that any NPC can be killed. As Fargo notes, any such kill can and will have other consequences down the line. JarlFrank asks Fargo: "So, when you say you always have a choice of helping someone or killing them - is it possible to kill everyone you meet?" Fargo nods. "You can certainly try, but with some guys, who have a lot of strong guards around them, you will certainly fail if you aren't well enough prepared. And if you kill too many people, it will have consequences for you - that's not the way Desert Rangers should act and you will feel the consequences of your actions. But even if you just kill a few people, there might be consequences you didn't expect. Maybe that man you just killed was somebody's uncle, and that somebody will refuse to help you or even attack you later in the game. Of course, if you kill someone without any witnesses, nobody will know that you did the deed." The principle of every action having an appropriate consequence for the player is a very important part of Wasteland 2's design, Fargo stresses. Whenever the player does something that has an impact on the world, the world will react accordingly.
Later, a trek into the hills reveals a minefield as a party member steps on a mine. Beekers points out that with high enough Perception, the mine could have been discovered and Findley follows up saying that a character with Disarm could have taken care of it in that case. The current party has no points in Disarm, however, so that solution is unavailable and the player will need a more creative solution to get past the minefield. Findley picks a party member with Animal Whisperer and proceeds to lure a couple of sheep towards him. The witless sheep proceed into the minefield and trigger the remaining mines. “Certainly seems like a Codexian solution,” Fargo laughs. Although this is a cool demonstration of an obstacle with multiple methods of bypassing it, we can't help but think that the sheep seem a little arbitrarily positioned. Next to each mine, conveniently placed, is a sheep, just waiting for the right shepherd to come to send it off to sheep heaven on a free mine lift. Hopefully, this arbitrariness is an artifact of this being a demo. Tailor-made skill use opportunities like this seem contrary to the principles of dynamic gameplay, where players need to get creative to find solutions.
Next we see a demonstration of the game's dialogue system. The presentation of the dialogue has improved a lot. There's still a HUD with keyword-based dialogue responses, but mousing over each keyword gives you a full sentence example of what you are about to say. Fargo notes that they've made an effort to make this text as neutral as possible, so you're not forced to express certain personality types just based on simple responses.
Fargo goes on to briefly discuss the game's joinable NPCs. Around 20 or so are spread throughout the game, some able to join for long stretches of time, and others for short stretches. You can bring along up to three at any given time, for a maximum total of seven party members. These NPCs will have their own agendas, and react to your actions according to their own motives. Some, according to Fargo, will be more difficult to handle than others. Some will perhaps pose so much of an annoyance to you that you'll want to dispose of them. Others may leave on their own initiative. Others will fit in perfectly with your established party.
As Findley's party encounter a hunkered down enemy position, Keenan explains that they now have several decisions ahead of them. An obvious option here would be to use stealth. Every enemy has a line of sight cone, with three different colors signifying their awareness at a given range. As characters gain more points in stealth, enemy fields of vision and detection range shrink, and the cones get smaller. Findley sends his stealth-trained character up on a ridge, flanking the enemy position. Since the enemy hasn't detected him yet, he is able to initiate combat with a surprise shot from his rifle. And so the carnage begins.
Now, it is no secret that I was skeptical about Wasteland 2's combat system. Having only one or two relevant combat skills for each character severely limits their strategic options, and having few tactical options in combat seems to limit any possibility of tactical depth. It becomes evident during the presentation, however, that Wasteland 2's systems are more complex than they might seem at first. Adding complexity to the character system is an array of Fallout-like traits and perks. Traits have bonuses and penalties - they are boosts to a character's abilities that come with a trade-off. Perks are additional bonuses characters can pick on level-up – although exactly how often characters get to pick them, the guys weren't sure of yet. “Still being balanced,” Fargo commented. He also pointed out that they had discussed different systems for allowing characters to add traits later in the game. “Basically,” Fargo begins, “we want traits that express how your character changes as he makes decisions in the wasteland. As the player progresses through the game, the characters are changed by the decisions they made and the consequences they have. We'd like to exemplify that via traits in the character system.” All of this seems to add a bit more strategic variety to the character system, beyond just stacking up a few combat skills, though only in the final implementation will we see whether it was successful or not.
Back in the firefight, Findley has sent his men into cover, and the enemies are scrambling to cover as well, demonstrating the game's cover mechanics. I ask Beekers: “you have some sort of range system in place as well, right?” Beekers nods, and asks Findley to select a ranged character. When the character is selected, squares light up on the screen. “The green squares,” Beekers explains and points to the green squares close to the character, “represent a bonus to hit. The character is so close that hitting with a firearm is trivial. The yellow squares,” he continues and points at medium range from the character “represent normal range. Finally, the red squares,” Beekers points to the squares farthest away from the character, “represent a penalty to hit due to the range.”
Fargo continues with an overview of the game's weapon mechanics. Ammo is generally sparse, although depending on your choices, you might see a lot or little of it. Use multiple guys with assault rifles? Better come packed with salvage skills to stack up on ammo, and even then, you will often run dry. Focus on single shot weapons and salvaging skills? Perhaps you'll be able to amass plenty of bullets with enough work, but your guns won't be as versatile or powerful as other weapons. Focus on multiple weapons? Well, then you're giving up on other skills. “With Wasteland 2,” Fargo explains, “our driving design is to make sure everything has trade-offs.” Assault rifles are versatile and powerful, handguns are reliable and have decent range, while sniper rifles are accurate and devastating, but can't even be used at too close a range. When a rabid wolf charges Findley's sniper, it applies a damage-over-time effect to him while he scrambles to get some distance from the wolf so he can fire at it.
JarlFrank is inspired by the lunging wolf and asks: “how will you guys deal with melee? Seems like melee is often underpowered in these games. You have to run up to the guy to try and hit him with your hammer, while he is filling you with bullets on the way there.” Fargo nods. “Well, besides melee needing no ammunition, there are a few ways to do melee which solve that problem. For example, a Strength-based melee build can wear very heavy armor, shrugging off some of the pain he takes on his way to his ranged foe.” Findley breaks in: “that's one way, but not the way I'm currently doing it. My melee guy has a bunch of Speed and Agility. He'll run straight up to the ranged guy, get in some damage, and run to cover like a sissy,” Findley laughs.
Keenan moves on to demonstrate one of the game's support units, the Disco Bot, a robot that shines bright disco lights across the battlefield, empowering the party's foes. Taking in all of this in the brief amount of time we have, we conclude that the game is not quite as tactically and strategically simplistic as one could have feared. However, with reliance on cover, enemy types, range differentiation, and a fairly simple system to guide it all, it seems that the game will be heavily dependent on level and encounter design, moreso perhaps than some other RPGs. Only the final game will reveal to what extent Wasteland 2 will succeed in this department.
As the demonstration draws to a close, we begin to realize why Thomas Beekers was hired by inXile. Whenever Fargo or Keenan reply to our questions in ways that are perhaps less than useful to us, Beekers quickly jumps in. He clearly knows that the Codex is primarily interested in gameplay mechanics, and he seems to always be ready with an extension of Keenan and Fargo's replies when they are insufficiently technical.
In the end, we leave impressed with what we saw of Wasteland 2. It should be noted, however, that the presentations given at games conferences like these are short bursts of carefully controlled gameplay, designed to show off the games at their very best to the people watching them, and perhaps more importantly, with perfect pacing between different types of play. That being said, we can certainly say that at its very best, Wasteland 2 looks like something we'd really like to play.
On our way out from inXile, we stumble into Michael Hoss from bitComposer, whom you'll recall was involved in the negotiations with Coreplay concerning the dispute the two parties had over Codex pet project Chaos Chronicles. Michael is in a good mood, though obviously taxed by his many duties at the conference. Of course, the first thing we ask about is Chaos Chronicles: “Well, I can't say more than that I still pray for a solution to this. I really fucking hope we can come to some sort of terms with Coreplay on this,” he says, “but it takes two to tango.” His smile fades a bit. “You know, when you work in this business, you see plenty of games come and go. You see good games, you see bad games. What beats me up about this whole dispute, is that I played the game, and you know what? It was fucking great. It was the kind of game you could be proud of having a hand in. The kind of game where the talent of the development team really showed. Such a shame.”
Later that night, after JarlFrank has returned home, I'm at the Ubisoft party. While drinking the worst Mojito of my life (containing way too much alchohol for a drink that is supposed to be very balanced), a message ticks in on my mobile. It's from Belarusian developer Alexander Dergay, CEO of Aterdux Entertainment, the developers of Legends of Eisenwald. When Legends of Eisenwald launched their Kickstarter, the first site to cover the tactical strategy-RPG hybrid was the RPG Codex. Dergay likes the Codex, and he clearly feels like he owes a debt of gratitude towards the community that eagerly accepted his pitch when other magazines like RPS were mostly silent to his pleas for coverage. I decide to ditch the crappy drink for a solid German brew and walk out of the restricted Ubisoft area to sit outside at a wooden table with Dergay. Alexander Dergay is a merry fellow, and we hug as he steps outside to greet me, gifting me with a Legends of Eisenwald shirt.
There can be no doubt of this man's passion for what he is doing. Dergay has travelled to Germany from Belarus to make a deal concerning the retail distribution of his game, which will hopefully be launching in Q4 2013. The huge smile that has so far been plastered across the man's face dims somewhat as he relates his experiences so far. “Most publishers tell me that Q4 isn't so good. A lot of competition during that time. Well, we want to get the game out as soon as it is finished, so we don't let our backers wait more than necessary. If these guys don't want to help us get it out during Q4, well, it's their loss.” Though Dergay is visibly happy and gives honest expression to his fondness for the Codex community, whom he refers to as “some of the guys who made all this possible,” it is clear that leading the development of such a niche title through sheer force of will is a heavy burden, and Dergay looks like he's been running all day. Even so, he takes an immense amount of pride in his work, and it is with thinly veiled enthusiasm that he shows me a work-in-progress version of the launch trailer for Legends of Eisenwald.
My conversation with Dergay is an enlightening one. The basic systems of Legends of Eisenwald are complete, the story is complete, the scenario design is complete. In essence, the entire game is all but complete, feature-wise. But that's not what's causing the team to feel pressured - ensuring that the content is polished and complete is. “You have to understand,” Dergay says, “that these scenarios can be very complex, and we have to deliver the content without error. Computers are fickle creatures. Suddenly, some players might report a crash at the endgame of a scenario, and it will be impossible – actually impossible – for us to reproduce. And don't get me started on Windows 8. All this needs to be done, needs to be finished, by the time we launch.”
I finish my beer, and we discuss a bit of politics and history before I go back inside to the roaring sound of cosplayers dancing to Psy's 'Gentleman' on a stage connected to Ubisoft's bestseller, Just Dance.
Gamescom is a rush. Every second of the conference you're either going somewhere or you're at something. You're late for a lot of things, and information is delivered hurriedly and through the manipulated lens of PR and community management. This is not the place for contemplation or for critical interviews. There is no room for extended exchanges with the people you're most eager to meet, and there are no chances to get anything but a superficial glimpse at what you're interested in.
Yet Gamescom is also a rare opportunity for guys without connections to meet the developers that produce their favorite games and the publishers who pay for them. It's just a damned shame that it all has to happen on their terms.